FLASHBACK: Democratic Messages–Does Obama Cut It? (With an Aside about Obama’s Organizing & Connection to One of the ’04 Candidates)

Back when I was contributing to that OTHER SITE, I wrote this piece about what the Democratic message in 2004 might be…or should be.  I looked back to 1992 to the Clinton-Gore campaign, then brought the reader back to 2003 and looked at the messages being formed by the leading candidates at the time (John Kerry hadn’t yet declared.)  James Carville was discussing the type of candidate that was needed to renew the concept of “generational responsiblity,” which he called the “big issue” for Democrats in 2004.  And who seemed to articulate this “big issue” most clearly during the primary season? Former Senator and Ambassador Carol Mosely Braun.

Braun, who was from Chicago, Illinois and who became the first black woman elected to the Senate, was fairly controversial (with campaign funds coming under scrutiny and a trip to NIgeria where she met with the dictator in charge).  She was defeated in her 1998 re-election bid but in 2003-2004 when she ran for President, her message about “generational promise” was the most clearly articulated. (She dropped out of the race 4 days before the Iowa caucuses and supported Howard Dean.)

What’s interesting is that Barack Obama was involved in getting her elected to the Senate through his work with Project Vote.  At the time he was popular for his “integrity” and “honesty” and was perceived as “not at all comfortable with the political game of getting and staying elected, of raising money in backroom deals and manipulating an electable image”  Wow, have times changed! (See “HINDSIGHT” below for more on Braun and also a link to a 1995 article on the activities of Barack Obama at that time.)

So, give this blast from the past a read and think about the shift in the Democratic message since 1992.  The idea of passing on a better future for the next generation is one that I’m not seeing much of this time around. Will Obama’s flirtation with some rather conservative ideas really serve the next generations well?? At the same time,  we’ve also seen a sharp split being created by the Obama campaign–old vs. young.  And what the older generation has done is getting short shrift. A break is being created, not a true bridging of the generations.  A whole lot of older folks have been thrown under the bus.

Oh, but in his acceptance speech, Obama does give us a line, as vague as ever…

Four years ago, I stood before you and told you my story — of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren’t well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to.

It is that promise that has always set this country apart — that through hard work and sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well.

Does it meet James Carville’s thoughts on the type of candidate Democrats need?  It seems incomplete to me…pursuing dreams is one thing, but having a better lfe than the previous generation is another. See below and and judge for yourself…

And now…to other times, other candidates, and the BIG ISSUE….

A Media Watch Special Report……… September 11, 2003


On August 11, 2003, Former Texas Governor Ann Richards paid a visit to Larry King; a caller asked the following question:

CALLER: We all know that Democratic candidates are reduced to basically soundbytes and ridicule in the media. How can Democrats force attention back to the fact that whether it’s the problems with the economy, national security, utility and industrial deregulation are the products of failed regressive Republican Party policies…

RICHARDS: Once our nominee is chosen, the opportunity for getting the message out there is going to be much easier than it is now. Because there’s so many candidates it just kind of becomes a clutter. But once that nominee is chosen the biggest problem the Democrats are going to have is choosing a single message and not being all over the place. Because of the Bush record on the economy, on medical care, on education, we have such a wealth of stuff that we can use, that I’m afraid that we’re going to get too splayed out and there isn’t going to be a concise message. Do you understand? KING: You would make it a one-issue campaign?

RICHARDS: Well, no, you don’t do that, but you try to select an issue so that it can encompass more than one or two things and consistently drive that message home

(http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0308/11/lkl.00.html). (This link is still active)


Here’s my take on the situation, Ann.


Think back and remember that by 1992 we had endured 12 years of Republican rule. Reagan had drained the economy and our spirits. The constant hammering on women’s rights, welfare mothers, basically anyone and anything that wasn’t with the right wing program, left many feeling as if they weren’t welcome in their own country. The Right-to-Lifers were unleashed, unions were slammed, and David Stockman told us of the plan to spend like crazy on defense and destroy the safety net. Lebanon was disaster. Then the out-of-touch Poppy Bush came along and dragged us into the 90’s but not before leaving us with the first TV war in Iraq.

Sound familiar? Of course it does, except these days we’re experiencing the same agenda turned up about 100 notches, with a heavy dose of Bush 2’s arrogance and testosterone thrown in for good measure. It’s been a pretty dispiriting couple of years.

But let’s not kid ourselves—the Reagan/Bush 1 years were just as stressful and enervating. By 1992 Democrats and Independents were desperate for air, sick of feeling stifled and worn down.

Then, out of the blue came Bill Clinton. A teacher friend and I took notice. As the primary season unwound, we discovered that not only did we want change…we were hungry for it. A testament to this deep and desperate longing to get rid of the repressive Reagan/Bush 1 years is the fact that I have stored away video cassettes full of Clinton rallies, speeches, and sax playing during the primary and general election campaign. I just taped and taped, hanging on everything Clinton-Gore and saving it just in case we didn’t win the election and I would need some good memories to get through another four years.

The media had not become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party just yet. Clinton/Gore barnstormed on a bus and the debates were incredible (Perot was too short for his stool and Bush helped by looking at his watch as Clinton prowled the platform.) My friend and I found the energy electric. We went to see Hillary at a campaign stop at Rutgers and we worked the phone banks. Election night we got together at her house, had a pizza, and counted the electoral votes. When it was all over we cried tears of relief. We felt a huge weight lift…after 12 years of tension and frustration, we felt free!

Aside from that memorable election night, the high point of the whole election cycle for us occurred the night before on November 1, 1992 when we went to the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, NJ for the final Clinton/Gore campaign rally. The place was packed to the rafters with supporters and volunteers. The music was loud, the 20,000 hungry could almost taste victory as the candidates appeared and wound up their campaign. It was probably one of the biggest adrenalin rushes of my life.

Of course, in hindsight, we didn’t have much time to enjoy victory because the “hunting of the President” started almost as soon as Clinton was elected. But for a while in 1992, things couldn’t have been better…we were reinvigorated and full of hope as we looked forward.


Because of that campaign, I don’t think Ann Richards’ worries about the Democrats’ ability to get out a simple and clear message have to become the reality. If Democrats rummage around their campaign memorabilia and think back, they may find they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

I’ve done some rummaging and I think I’ve found the “single message” that could be the foundation for the 2004 campaign. It’s printed on a souvenir I’ve kept from that incredible election eve rally…a simple card which bears the theme of the Clinton/Gore campaign and subsequent agenda:


(Pic of the card was here in the original piece)

Why do I think a message similar to the one used in 1992 is perfect for 2004? Well, as I’ve pointed out, we’re now experiencing a replay of the Reagan/Bush 1  years—with a vengeance. Four years of Bush 2 will certainly prove to be as grueling, if not more so, than the 12 years of Reagan/Bush 1. Not only has everything Clinton did to restore the country been undermined, but Bush-Cheney have gone back to finish the job started in the 80’s, even resurrecting the same cast of players to accomplish the final sell-out of the country to corporate interests. PNAC has moved from theory to full operations, with dire ramifications for both domestic and foreign policies. The “compassionate conservatism” mantra of the 2000 Bush campaign—a steal from the ‘92 Clinton/Gore playbook, in my opinion—has turned out to be a hollow manipulation of the original message. Whereas Clinton/Gore tried to follow through on the agenda outlined in their campaign book “Putting People First,” it’s clear that Bush never had any intention to be compassionate about anything.

(SNIP– a section on the Bush years was here in the original)

(SNIP–section was here in the original that looked at the websites and campaign messages of the leading candidates at the time: Howard Dean, John Edwards, and Bob Graham. (Kerry had yet to formerly declare his candidacy at the time the piece was written.)

A recent Washington Post article titled “Short-Fused Populist, Breathing Fire at Bush” by Evelyn Nieves (July 6, 2003) depicts Dean “…the Democrats’ angry Everyman” even though “Most Vermonters would say that Dean the Passionate Populist who extols health care and equal rights for all is a Different Dean from the one they know…. Whether it’s his message (“You have the power to change this country” is a campaign mantra) or his method, or both, Dean’s passionate, bare-fisted pounding at the Washington power structure is obviously working, at least for now.”

(http://www.hrc.org/campaigns/2004/candidates/news/dean_washpost070603.asp). (This link is no longer active)

It seems to me that Dean’s whole campaign effort has been very strong on “connecting” with people so far, particularly in his brilliant use of the Internet. But will Dean develop his “People/Powered”/You have the power to change this country” references into a powerful overarching campaign theme that can be as effective as 1992’s “Putting People First—For a Change”?


That bit of musing might have been the final thought in this essay, until I happened across some words of wisdom by none other than Clinton’s 1992 mastermind, James Carville.

In the March 11, 2002 Salon Interview with Joan Walsh, Carville was already commenting on what he saw as strong currents in the Democratic party and the nation and the type of candidate he favored:

Carville: “And I think there’s a real hunger in the party, and in the country, for someone who’s gonna stand up for them, stand up and fight for something.”

Walsh: Who might that be? Do you have a candidate for 2004?

Carville: You know what? I’m for the person who can stand up and articulate where this party ought to go, who can do it in a tough way, who’s not saying something one day and apologizing the next. I’ll be for that person. (“Carville on His Candidate: The Salon Interview: James Carville”

http://www.salon.com/people/feature/2002/03/11/carville/index_np.html?x intro only  (This link is still active.)

http://www.angelfire.com/indie/pearly/htmls/carville-salon.html full text). (This link is still active)

Within the last few months Carville has talked in more specific terms about the message such a candidate should deliver. In a July 23, 2003 interview with TomPaine.com, Carville argues that Democrats need a “big issue” in 2004:

‘”If it comes to who is going to get a break, people who make $1 million today or young kids who will make the country tomorrow, you don’t even have to look.”

And that lead to what Carville said was the big issue for Democrats in ’04, what he called the Bush administration’s reversal of “the generational promise of America – each time we do what we can do to make the next generation better.”

“That promise, today like no other time in our lifetime, is under attack,” he said. “The idea that we are a society beyond our own self-interest is under attack. We are told America is best when people are interested in ourselves. We know America is better when we’re based on a common interest.

“We have a president that is no longer interested in what happens to the next generation. We have a president that is no longer interested in what happens to the promise of America.”’ (“James Carville’s Rx For Democrats,” Steven Rosenfeld, TomPaine.com, July 23, 2003 http://www.tompaine.com/feature2.cfm/ID/8430). (This link is not active)

In 1992, “Putting People First” carried with it the idea of reversing years of “losing ground” that many Americans had experienced under Reagan/Bush; Carville’s new twist on “generations” takes the 1992 mantra and connects it to the theme of what the people of this country can expect to leave for their children’s futures. (In my view, Clinton’s signature theme song, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” by Fleetwood Mac was used to rev up anticipation for a Clinton presidency rather than the idea of “generations.”) A message of “the generational promise” seeks to reconnect Americans to a sense of “the greater good” and a positive sense of unity as a nation; it takes the “Putting People First” mantra to a higher level and gives Americans the opportunity to consider a broader purpose when they vote.

At the moment, all of the Democratic candidates are speaking out in mundane terms about working families and ways to address the problems they face. For example, during his September 7th appearance in San Francisco, Dean took on Arnold Schwartzenegger’s statement that he (Schwartzenegger) would not be taking any money from unions because he considers them a ”special interest” group.

Dean looked at the women surrounding him at the podium, and recited their occupations: nurses’ aides, food service workers, and physical therapists. “Not exactly special interests,” Dean said wryly. “I call them hard working Americans. (“Presidential Hopeful Howard Dean Gets a Big Show of Support in S.F.,” Carla Marinucci, San Francisco Chronicle, September 7, 2003 http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/09/07/MN31311.DTL). (This link is still active)

BUT…are ANY of the candidates moving beyond this sort of “sub-issue” and broadening the message that can form the “big issue” and inspiration for the 2004 campaign?

Well, yes, but it isn’t one of the frontrunners. At the end of the September 4, 2003 Democratic presidential debate in Albuquerque, Univision’s Maria Elena Salinas queried the candidates on the subject of immigration and amnesty for illegal workers in the U.S. In the last minutes of the discussion, Carol Mosely Braun remarked:

And this election– this election really does pit which direction our country is going to head. Are we going to put ourselves in a position to move forward, to reach out to others, to resolve these issues instead of having people locked up and their phones tapped and their e-mails tapped and locked up in secret arrests and the like?

Instead of doing that, can’t we begin to reconcile our relations with others, to work well with others at the international community to begin to restore the kind of hope and optimism that has always characterized this country? Because I believe–if I can finish this–I believe the real issue here is our generation’s responsibility to make sure that we leave no less for the next generation than we inherited from the last one. And working together is the only way we’re going to be able to that. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debate03/part5.html) (This link is still active)

There it is, the “big issue.” Hats off to Carol Mosely Braun for putting this idea out there! But, now we’ll have to wait in see if the message gets picked up by any of the other candidates any time soon. And, of course, we’ll have to see if this concept becomes the core of the Democratic national campaign in 2004.

I fervently hope that the Democratic candidate who goes head to head with Bush doesn’t waste valuable time, effort, and money searching for a new playbook when it’s obvious that building on the message of 1992 is the key. I implore the candidates – listen to Carville and, if Braun isn’t the candidate, listen to her!

And, heck, while they’re at it, why shouldn’t they listen to me! “PUT PEOPLE FIRST, NOW…AND FOR THE FUTURE!” – it’s a start and it could be a winner. For, I think most folks believe, just as in 1992, that people have to count in this country – now, in 2004, and for always.

Copyright 2003


**I may have been wrong about Clinton’s campaign theme being only about looking forward to his Presidency rather than generational change.  After all, Bill Clinton was the first “baby-boomer” President. All I know is that I was DESPERATE to throw off the Reagan-Bush years!

**This article from December 8, 1995 from the Chicago Reader (What Makes Obama Run?) gives a real taste of what Barack Obama was doing at the time he began getting involved in politics.  You can see how he worked locally and how he thought the energy of the black churches should be put to use. Look for mentions of ACORN, the Woods Foundation, and the Daley administration.

Here’s the relevant passage about Moseley-Braun’s campaign…and note the last quotation:

In 1992 Obama took time off to direct Project Vote, the most successful grass-roots voter-registration campaign in recent city history. Credited with helping elect Carol Moseley-Braun to the U.S. Senate, the registration drive, aimed primarily at African-Americans, added an estimated 125,000 voters to the voter rolls–even more than were registered during Harold Washington’s mayoral campaigns. “It’s a power thing,” said the brochures and radio commercials.

**Carol Mosely Braun is apparently out of politics, having last served as Ambassador to New Zealand for the Clinton Adminstration from 1999-2001. Since then, she has run a law practice in Chicago and founded an organic foods line. In an inteview from what seems to be around 2005, she talks about her law practice, the 2004 campaign and how she got little support from the Democratic Party, and new DNC head Howard Dean’s plan to build local parties and the grassroots.

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